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Vintage digicams sought again by '90s kids

Once dominant in the early 2000s before smartphones, digital cameras make comeback as retro trend

By No Kyung-min

Published : May 17, 2024 - 10:42

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A Samsung VLUU ES30 camera, sold online by a secondhand camera retailer (Instagram @oxo_cam) A Samsung VLUU ES30 camera, sold online by a secondhand camera retailer (Instagram @oxo_cam)

Old digital cameras, long neglected and gathering dust in South Korean homes, are now seeing a resurgence in demand in the secondhand market.

Driving this newfound interest in vintage devices are both people in their 20s who grew up in the smartphone-camera era and those in their 30s who used digital cameras as kids.

"I think owning a vintage camera is really hip nowadays," said Park Hye-in, 31, in an interview with The Korea Herald. Having recently purchased a used vintage camcorder, she explained that the appeal of the device lies not only in its retro design but also in its low-definition image, which gives off “retro vibes," according to her.

K-pop group NewJeans take a photo with an old digital camera in a promotional image for the group's single, “Ditto.” (Ador) K-pop group NewJeans take a photo with an old digital camera in a promotional image for the group's single, “Ditto.” (Ador)

Low-res on purpose

The revival of vintage digital cameras, tapping into a desire for more artistic styles in images, coincides with the Y2K trend in K-pop, with NewJeans at the forefront, as seen in their “Ditto” music video, which features digital camcorder footage and embodies retro themes.

This visual presentation evokes nostalgia for those born around the 1990s, resonating with individuals like Park, who recently spent 400,000 won ($295) on her pink Sony camcorder.

"This gadget is a rare find, originally manufactured solely for the Japanese domestic market," she spoke of the gadget, which she bought from an Instagram seller. "I've developed a fondness for such vintage digital devices, inspired by those around me who flaunt their vintage cameras."

She further mentioned that the camcorder adds stylistic flair to her otherwise subdued attire.

Indeed, on Bungaejangter, a South Korean secondhand marketplace app, there is a wide array of vintage digital cameras from brands like Canon, Samsung, Olympus and Nikon listed for sale. More than 7,000 posts fall into the digital and toy camera category, with prices ranging from 50,000 won to upwards of 450,000 won.

The ripple effect of this trend even extends to Generation Z, who, despite not having direct experience with the era of digital cameras, are also drawn to its niche aesthetics. The relatively low-quality images, reminiscent of analog photography, are a novelty that offers a stark contrast to the polished photos and videos easily captured with smartphones.

A camera retailer named Kim, whose social media account promoting camera sales commands a following of around 37,000, said that his main clientele consists of women in their 20s.

“Young women, seemingly influenced by K-pop stars, are enthusiastic about looking for vintage digital cameras and camcorders," he said. "The most sought-after ones are those in pink and white colors and those favored by famous Korean celebrities.

He added that the fact that these cameras are no longer being made, combined with the retro trend, has caused their average prices to double or even triple. Compared to the latest ubiquitous smartphone models, “These pieces, which are highly scarce, lend their users a unique character, seldom encountered elsewhere.”

In 2020, Japanese endoscope maker Olympus announced its exit from the camera business, shifting its focus to the production and development of medical devices. Meanwhile, other camera manufacturers such as Sony and Canon are concentrating on producing DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, which, unlike vintage digital cameras, offer high-quality images in high resolution.

For casual users, there's no need to go to great lengths to purchase these devices, as camera apps like Snow offer a simple solution by providing a range of retro-themed photo filters.

Lee Kyung-jun, an office worker in his 30s, shared that his favorite pastime is taking selfies with friends using Snow's filters like "Y2K Phone," "Polaroid PRO," "Blue digital film" and "Retro camcorder,” all of which intentionally add a coarse and blurry texture to the images.

"I love immersing myself in a nostalgic mood by framing us in an old-fashioned way," he said, mentioning that it reminds him of Haduri, a software for taking video and photos with a computer webcam, once popular among Korean students during the early '00s.

A Canon IXUS 300 HS camera, sold online by a secondhand camera retailer (Instagram @oxo_cam) A Canon IXUS 300 HS camera, sold online by a secondhand camera retailer (Instagram @oxo_cam)

Digital cameras for sale on Bungaejangter (Screenshot from Bungaejangter) Digital cameras for sale on Bungaejangter (Screenshot from Bungaejangter)